Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” which takes place over a span of 15 years, seduces its viewers. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
A love story told in the empty spaces between the scenes, Pawel Pawlikowski’s mesmerizing “Cold War” takes place over a span of 15 years. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician, meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer, in bleak 1949 Poland; he’s music director of a youth folk ensemble for which she auditions. Their eyes meet, and off we go: to Berlin, Yugoslavia, Paris, and back to Poland again, as the years go by and their relationship bobs up and down like a ship in rough waters. They are very different — he’s quiet and introspective; she’s tempestuous — but seem meant to be together even as life conspires to keep them apart; she is, he tells someone midway through the film, “the woman of my life.”
Like Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning 2014 film “Ida,” “Cold War” is shot in black and white, and cinematographer Lukasz Zal finds a chilly, etched beauty in every frame; you’re struck by how snow seems to stroke and soften a harsh landscape, and by the poignancy of wind ruffling the grass in a quiet field. Particularly in the early scenes in a war-ravaged Poland, you see cold everywhere — the young singers wear their threadbare coats indoors — and the actors are often captured standing eerily and beautifully still, like icy statuary. And the film frequently cuts to silent black, much of its drama happening outside our gaze.
A changing, dangerous world flavors this Romeo-and-Juliet story: Wiktor, seeking freedom and troubled by the Stalinist regime, wants to escape to Paris; Zula, enjoying her newfound fame with the ensemble (even as their repertoire veers more toward propaganda), is less enamored with the West. But while the politics add context, they aren’t particularly dwelled upon: Pawlikowski, who has said that the film is inspired by the story of his parents (who had a similarly up-and-down relationship for decades on both sides of the Iron Curtain), is more interested in two gazes meeting; two people clinging to each other on a dance floor; two hands clasped; two lives knitted together, for better or worse.
Playing out its drama through music (“I Loves You, Porgy,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “The Man I Love,” along with Polish folk music, are among the many songs fleetingly heard), “Cold War” seduces its viewer, in its brief running time. You might find, in the quiet of its poignant ending, that it has left its mark on your heart.
★★★½ “Cold War,” with Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza. Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. 89 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content, nudity and language. In Polish, with English subtitles. Opens Jan. 18 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.